Book Review: Black Flower by Howard Bahr

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blackPaperback, 272 pages

Published: May 5, 2000 by Picador (1st Published 1997)

Setting: Franklin, Tennessee

Literary Awards: W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction (1998)

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On this November afternoon, Bushrod Carter was barely twenty-six, but his greasy hair and mustache were already shot with gray. The grime of the long campaign from Atlanta was etched in the lines of his face and in the cracked knuckles of his hands; crammed under his fingernails was a paste of black powder, bacon grease, and the soil of three Confederate states … The fortunes of war had left him still a private of the line, carrying a musket in the ranks of the regiment he had joined more than three years before … It was just as well with him, for he really possessed no military ambition. In fact, he was sure he no longer possessed ambition of any kind. (p. 5)

Bushrod Carter and fellow Cumberland County, Mississippi, natives comprise a weary regiment of soldiers, fighting “The Strangers” from the North, for reasons they only dimly understand. Carter, a University of Mississippi graduate, stands with his childhood friends, Jack and Virgil, as they prepare for battle. They gather near a house that will be used as a makeshift hospital. The residents of the house, including Caroline, her two children, and her cousin Anna, have only a nebulous sense of the horror they’ll soon witness. The chronology of this novel unfolds over the course of two days and takes us through the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, one of the bloodiest battles of the War Between the States.

The Black Flower is written in a poetic style; I often paused to savor the exquisite language. And, as with a poem, there is a sense of the story taking place outside time. This is fitting in a novel in which death is such a pervasive theme. The reader weaves in and out of Bushrod’s thoughts and memories, and later into Anna’s mind, slipping into flashbacks and glimpses of the future. We see the brutality of the battle and its aftermath, when surgeons, drunk on chloroform, saw off soldiers’ limbs. We experience snippets of the characters’ past. We also gaze into a future in which women of the former Confederacy will silently visit graves, and all that will remain of many of soldiers — both Confederates and “Strangers” — are belt buckles, bullets, and other detritus of battles they fought.

This book is gorgeously written, thoroughly researched, and vivid, with bits of humor woven in. The characters are well drawn and believable. Sometimes they show strength, loyalty, and love, and at times they are cowardly and cruel. In the end, we watch Bushrod and Anna glean some human dignity, and even a glimmer of love, from a situation that is brutal and in many ways hopeless. I was entranced by the beauty of the novel, and I felt as if I were hearing a first-hand account of part of the Civil War.

On the other hand, I found it somewhat unsatisfying. I wanted to know the characters in more depth, and I was craving a bit more of a narrative story, which might have developed as we delved into the characters’ pasts. I didn’t see this as a weakness in the novel — it’s just a more literary, less plot-driven kind of work. And the way it was written, with quick, vivid snatches of memory, feels real. After all, we look back on our past in glimpses, not as a flowing narrative.

I enjoyed the wealth of ideas The Black Flower explored. For example, time was an important theme. One character grasps the idea of time as a continuous line, like a landscape laid out before him. And throughout the horrifying events unfolding, the clock intermittently chimes. In keeping with the pervasive sense of being outside time, at one point it doesn’t stop chiming at 12 — it keeps tolling away.

I recommend this award-winning book to readers interested in learning more about the U.S. Civil War and to historical fiction aficionados who enjoy novels with an “artsy,” literary feel.

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